(a Finnish folktale)
Long, long ago, a boastful young man named Joukahainen, who lived in Lapland, decided he was the greatest singer in the universe.
But everyone knew Vainamoinen was the greatest bard, a sorcerer and magician and keeper of all the knowledge in the universe. He was, after all, son of the goddess Ilmatar. He had lived in his mother’s womb for 730 years, and so he possessed the wisdom of the ages.
But Joukahainen decided to challenge the old man. His father warned him, “He will sing against you and sink you into snowdrifts.” His mother, too, warned him not to go.
But Joukahainen was brash and bold, and so he attached a golden sledge to his fiery steed, and he set off for the South, to Vainamoinen’s home in Kaleva.
For three whole days he thundered across the land, until at long last he reached the sweet meadows and heath lands.
Vainamoinen was riding in his sledge when he suddenly heard pounding hooves coming closer and closer. Before he could make sense of the sound, something smashed into him, and his sledge runner shattered to pieces.
Vainamoinen was furious. “Who are you to drive so recklessly?” he shouted at the lad. “Don’t you know that you must make way for your elders? You should have pulled to the side of the road and allowed me to pass.”
The bold young man recognized Vainamoinen and sneered. “Age doesn’t matter. Only wisdom and knowledge count, and so I challenge you to a singing duel. Let us see which of the two of us is wiser!”
Vainamoinen laughed. “What wisdom can someone as young as you possibly possess?”
At this, Joukahainen began to sing. He sang of salmon and pike, perch and humpback whales. He sang of reindeer in the North, horses in the South, elk in Lapland. He sang tales of every creature and the journeys they took. He sang of the trees on Pisa Mountain and of powerful waterfalls.
Vainamoinen shook his head and said, “Childish tales. Those are stories every mother tells her sons and daughters. You possess no wisdom of things eternal.”
“I do!” Joukahainen protested, and he sang of hissing vipers and ancient fish, of iron ore and the scent of the oldest, blackest mud. He sang of boiling water and its pain, and he sang of the heat of ancient fire. “Water is the oldest medicine,” he sang, “and the creator is a sorcerer. The first tree is a willow, the earliest pots were stone.”
His song went on and on, the sound whirling in the air around them.
But as he sang, Vainamoinen shook his white-haired head and laughed. “Is that the end of your nonsense?” he asked when the song was finished.
“It is not!” the bold young man said. He sang again, of abysses and hills and heroes at the start of creation. “I scattered the stars in the heaven,” he sang. “I was the seventh hero, and I placed the sun and the moon and the bear in the sky …”
His voice rose higher and higher, filling the empty forest with lies, until at last the old man felt he might burst. “You are a liar! You were not there at the start of time. No one knew you.”
Stung by this taunt, Joukahainen challenged Vainamoinen to a duel.
Vainamoinen laughed again. “I do not fight duels with liars,” he said scornfully.
And that is when Vainamoinen, greatest bard in the world, began to sing. In a moment the earth started to tremble, lakes swelled, mountains shook, rocks resounded and stones cracked. The great bard’s blue coat burst open and floated to heaven, and his gloves turned into water lilies and his belt to a snake. Lightning flashed. His crossbow became a rainbow. His arms became hawks and soared overhead.
And only now did Joukahainen understand he was no match for the old man, but before he could say a word, he felt himself begin to sink into a marshy meadow. He sank to his ankles. “Stop!” he cried.
But the bard sang on, and the marsh softened, and Joukahainen sank to his knees, then to his waist, then to his chest.
“Vainamoinen, stop! I beg you,” he cried. “Sing your song backward and reverse the magic. Please, save me!”
But Vainamoinen did not stop. And the young man sank deeper.
“I will give you my crossbows,” he cried. “If only you’ll save me!”
“I’ll give you two boats, beautiful boats. And two stallions. And my father’s golden helmet lined with silver. I will give you my fields at home. All our barns …”
But Vainamoinen did not care for any of these things, and so he sang on, and Joukahainen could feel mud beginning to seep into his mouth. Soon he would be under the swamp altogether.
“Stop! I shall give you my sister Aino, my mother’s daughter. She will take care of you in your old age. She will sweep and dust and wash and bake for you.”
When Vainamoinen heard this promise, he stopped. He listened to the boy’s words. To be cared for by the beautiful Aino, this was a dream. And so he continued to sing, but now he sang his songs backward, reversing the magic.
The marsh began to recede.
Joukahainen breathed a deep sigh of relief as the swampy waters lowered, first to his chest, then his waist, then his knees, and at long he was free.
Dirty and humiliated, he set off for home to beg his mother to allow the old man to marry his beautiful sister.
And what happened next is a story for another day.
(Adapted from “The Kalevala, the Epic Poem,” by Elias Lonnrot in the 19th century.)